With improved play, Penguins 'deserved better'

Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford makes a save on the Penguins' Kris Letang in overtime Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.
Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford makes a save on the Penguins' Kris Letang in overtime Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.
Photo by Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Bill West
| Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, 6:51 p.m.

As puzzled by the number of shots that hit posts in Tuesday's 3-2 overtime loss to Chicago as the media members that surrounded him, Penguins center Sidney Crosby came up short in his search for words to explain his team's lack of “puck luck.”

“We probably deserved better,” he said.

“You don't know how the puck stays out,” he added later about a flurry of shots in overtime.

By almost any advanced metric and even by most basic statistical measures, the Penguins entered Wednesday night's rematch with the Blackhawks as a better offensive team than they represented a month ago, during Mike Johnston's final days as coach. The style of play encouraged by Mike Sullivan has turned the Penguins into one of the most proficient groups in the league at puck possession. Rarely are opponents getting more pucks to the net or even attempting more shots.

But there's anxiousness among the players to see better play translate to a prolonged winning streak that will put the Penguins closer to the top of the Eastern Conference.

They responded to Sullivan's mandate for greater shot quality and quantity. Through 11 games with the new coach, their per-60-minute rates for 5-on-5 shots on goal (36.1), shot attempts (63.0) and scoring chances (32.5) each sat at least 6.0 above where they were in 28 games with Johnston, according to war-on-ice.com.

Yet they entered Wednesday's game with a 5-on-5 goals-per-60 minutes rate of 1.5, which was 0.4 below the average maintained by the team under Johnston.

What remains confounding to Sullivan and company is the Penguins' 5-on-5 shooting percentage. At 4 percent through 11 games under Sullivan, it stuck out as an outlier. Under Johnston, the percentage was 6.3, which still represented an unusually low mark.

From top-line forwards to bottom-pair defensemen, talk of the need to better screen goalies and find more rebounds flows forth.

“It's hard to score on initial shots,” Sullivan said. “A lot of times, it's the initial shot that breaks coverage down, and it's the second and third opportunities that are the highest-quality chances.”

“Anything that finds its way toward the crease can suffice” was how the message came across to defenseman Olli Maatta.

“It doesn't have to be the hardest shot,” Maatta said. “Sometimes you wind up a full slap shot, and it takes too much time. We definitely have to get some pucks through, and I think that's one thing we can focus on, just shooting quicker, not as hard.”

According to NHL.com's database of shot types and outcomes, the Penguins' shooting percentage woes are most evident with the delivery methods that tend to keep the puck on the stick the longest. Of their 722 wrist shots on goal — fourth most in the league through Tuesday — just 46 found the back of the net, a below-average 6.4 shooting percentage. And of their 103 backhands — sixth most in the league — just nine went in, a shooting percentage of 8.7 that came in low for a shot associated with high-quality, close-range chances.

Slap shots and snap shots, used by the Penguins with less frequency than most teams, came with shooting percentages that compared favorably to the rest of the league.

But as forward Eric Fehr will attest, the type of shot that gets the job done can shift on a moment's notice. Fehr's last goal, scored against Minnesota on Dec. 26, came on a quick forehand flick at his feet on the rush, even though he planned to use his backhand as he watched the pass come from Kevin Porter in the corner.

“It got a little in tight on me ... and at that point, it's just try to put it on net as quick as you can,” Fehr said. “You want to throw it onto the far side, try to get the goalie moving, but at that point, it's more of a lucky shot.

“It was just kind of a weird play, but I think (overall) we've had a lot of good opportunities and different kind of opportunities than maybe we've had earlier in the year.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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